By LA Robbins
Thanks for everything. It was fun. Stay in touch. Waiting patiently at the train station. All good.
A tiny snort of air escaped her nostrils as Sara read the text. His message said it all. Except for the request to stay in touch. That was a standard euphemism, not a sincere request. Rob wouldn’t stay in touch. And she couldn’t stay in touch with him, for what it might imply.
She had just walked home along the cobbled stones of her adopted city after their first and last meal together. Tall palazzos lined the narrow passageways. Giant-tall arches framed the thick wooden doors that prickled with metal studs. Barred windows punctured their façades of heavy stone. Enduring testaments to the defensive fortifications that warring clans erected in medieval times. ‘Stay away! Keep out’
A recent arrival here, Sara did not mind the hostile message. She knew that behind those austere walls lived large families, some of whom still used the stone wells in the courtyards for washing and cleaning. Centuries ago these hidden enclosures, had teamed with servants and tradesmen who ensured a productive livelihood of textile design and embellishment, furniture carving, leather craft or silver smithing. She had explained this to Rob.
They had enjoyed each other’s company over the past month. Images of their rendezvous played back as she walked, unveiling a synchronicity and an inevitable ending, that had been emerging all along, though she hadn’t seen it. Patterns surfaced, one to the next, like the sliding, mirrored angles in a kaleidoscope. Their first meeting on the hike at the start of the month had resulted in an invitation to her housewarming party, from which they’d gone on to a Japanese horror film. His invites – first to the art exposition and then today’s lunch in the trattoria – had followed.
They had met on a group walk, her first exploration of the Tuscan hills beyond the city. Falling in step, they had traded commentary on the olive trees, their grey-green fronds already spotted with the small black nodules. She quickly filed Rob in her mind’s box of ‘sedentary couch sportsmen’: he carried extra girth and wore the ubiquitous twill baseball cap of the New York Yankees, logo stitched white on navy background. So she was slightly put off that Mr Banal was still buzzing around when she had deliberately quickened her step in order to speak to two women ahead. Rob had persisted in talking to her so, finally, she looked at him, a frown at the ready. Up close, unexpected constellations of freckles flecked his nose and cheeks. He seemed suddenly an energetic, tawny explorer rather than the grandfather material of couch potato. Later, when he removed his sunglasses, his light, sea green eyes were bright. His soft Kiwi accent had been a treat: flattened vowels and drawn out ‘e’ sounds (seeeven meenuts). He said ‘chilli bin’ instead of cooler and ‘quite nice’ when he meant the opposite.) She had surprised herself by inviting him to her party the following weekend.
Sara’s housewarming is to be a happy occasion. It marks a first chapter of her life as a mature single in her new city. She has a permanent address, a first job and the spindly group of friends and acquaintances she’d invited. She makes a little speech in English and in hesitant Italian, stages a celebratory toast. Yet the party is awkward, and not just because of the language problem. In all, 40 guests attend, within the broad time window she’d set. There is a chop and change of attendees, whose lack of connections is obvious. While she flits from group to group, making introductions, searching for what they have in common, Sara struggles to hide her nerves – what topic to steer them toward, dare she chitchat here when she needs to be cultivating links there? She misses the ease of entertaining as a couple. Her discomfort is aggravated by a few drifters, who examine her bookshelves and gaze at her artwork. She wants to rush over, insist they mingle. Rob, gentleman that he is, arrives after the first hour and stays until everyone has left. She wonders if he watches her from across the room. She glances over occasionally to see whom he speaks to. Gone is his baseball cap and obscured, beneath a button-down shirt, is the belly; he brushes up well.
Afterwards, she’s planned to escort interested guests including Rob, to a free showing of a scary Japanese film at a nearby cinema. But when it’s time for the film, those who’d wanted to come have already left. Even the paltry group of hangers-on politely declines and Rob begins to follow them out, then turns to her.
‘I could come if you’re still keen,’ he offers. Faux gallantry? She takes a breath. ‘That would be grand.’ She swallows the sudden image of him in her bed while assuring him brightly that it doesn’t matter that he won’t understand Italian subtitles: it’s a horror film. Cinematography and music will convey messages in the universal language of spooking the senses. And besides, it’s in Japanese, which neither of them speaks. Together they walk the ten minutes to the showing.
As the dark screen illuminates with opening credits of Kurasawa’s film, The Loft, Sara regrets that they have come. She should have bid Rob goodnight at her door when she kissed away her partygoers. With a group, viewing this film would have been alright. But two people alone, feels less alright, never mind the part of her that might want it. A horror film is where romantic moviegoers clutch at one another in mock alarm. She’s been too forward, sent a wrong signal. Presumably to a married man. He’s spoken of children; there must be partner. Divorced? Following his cues, she knows not to be physically friendly, senses the boundaries he sets. He presents an impenetrable façade like that of her city, with its thick walls, studded doors and barred windows. Yet, in countless ways, he also reveals the convivial courtyard that is inside this armor.
What will she do when there is dialogue? While she will understand some of the Italian, Rob will understand none. Will sotto voce explanations send another wrong signal? How to be the best-ever androgynous movie mate? And if she whispers, there are other viewers in the audience – she’ll need to be quiet. She decides to provide only brief, necessary commentary. The movie begins. The protagonist, a renowned author, struggles with writer’s block and a chronic intestinal cramping that results in her vomiting primeval sludge. When her editor offers his isolated countryside house, she welcomes a chance to leave the city: the tranquil environment will heal her mud malady. Once at his villa, she feels better. Work on her next novel, a romance, rather than the brainy tomes she usually produces, gets off to a confident start. Now and again Sara leans toward Rob and translates a snip of dialogue.
From her window in the villa the film’s protagonist notices a handsome neighbor moving a sheet-wrapped body into a corrugated steel warehouse in a field nearby. He is a renegade scientist, hiding the corpse of a thousand-year-old mummy – to prevent his university from meddling. He leads the author to his treasure and reverently pulls back the sheet to reveal a rag-covered cadaver, deep wells where eyes once were. This mummy, found in a nearby lake, is in better shape than most powdery, decaying specimens, he explains. Almost a hundred years earlier another such mummy had been discovered in the same lake, also incredibly intact. It seems that the lake’s mud preserves their ancient bones; they are not pulverized to dust. This is what the scientist hopes to explore on his own, without the involvement of the authorities. Mud preservation was equally useful to the living, his research shows. Women in ancient times often consumed the dark silt to extend their beauty, perhaps to extend their lives. The author’s eyes widen. She’s been bringing up black mud for weeks. Is there a connection between her and these women? Is her illness quietly rejuvenating her?
Though the scientist harbors an allegiance to his well-maintained mummy, he confides that he’s haunted by violent nightmares. The author sees how this pertinacious fidelity stops him from considering her – an attractive living woman – as a potential girlfriend. Since childhood, he’s been fascinated and repelled by aging, unable to accept the implications of what he sees. Though she is well preserved, his mummy is a withered corpse. Beauty cannot endure. The glowing energy of smooth, sensual youth transforms into decaying flesh and disintegrating bone; a radiant face with shining eyes becomes a skull with leering rows of teeth. How can anyone embark on an affair, knowing that this happens?
When the scientist is called away for a conference, he asks the author a huge favor. Will she look after his mummy. She obliges reluctantly. Each night before bed stares at the sheet-covered cadaver. Will it turn its hollow-eyed stare onto her, gesture with articulated bones, rise up to cause deadly mischief? Nothing of the sort transpires.
Upon his return the scientist is determined to see what is inside the mummy – to understand its preservation. His sharp knife is poised above the abdomen. Suddenly the author’s hand shoots out, wraps around his wrist: he must cease, she insists. There is a pox on disturbing ancient bones, surely he knows this. And perhaps she acts on a sense of camaraderie with her dark sister. The knife is sheathed.
Toward the film’s end, the couple’s strange disassociation evaporates, replaced by incongruous romance. On a walk though nearby fields, an embrace, accompanied by melodramatic violins, unites them. Yet he leads her on, from the fields to a pier that juts into a lake. There is a winch set into a tall, heavy iron frame at the head of the pier. Grabbing hold of the handle, the scientist turns the crank, a look of monomaniacal possession on his face. Of course he dredges up a new mummy. She hangs suspended from a hook by a cloth binding her waist. Her skeletal figure drips mud and water, arched backward in a U-shape, face obscured by matted dark hair. The scientist gazes at the black-garbed form in horror and reverence, his nightmares, reified. With that, the film ends. Sara and Rob exchange sniggers as they file out.
On Rob’s invite, they attend the art show at the city’s Expo Hall the following week.
‘I liked the title – “Art Perspectives on Bio-availability” – showcasing wannabe artists who find a way to represent sustainability so they can justify their work,’ Rob says.
Sara laughs. She had chosen her clothes with care. She fastened on a necklace, threaded gold hoops in her ears. To connote the first time she’d met a remotely interesting prospect since her divorce two years ago. Drinks or dinner with the few men who had asked had left her wishing she’d not wasted the time. Of course she unclasped the necklace, exchanged the hoops for sedate pearls. Didn’t touch her makeup. Kissed away lipstick in a tissue. Followed Rob’s protocol.
It’s the day of the opening so they wait before the crowd of pass-holders and locals is granted entrance. As they file toward the entrance, large glass doors sudden open, issuing forth a small band of revelers playing trumpets and twirling flags. Sara frowns; they’ve waited long enough already. Funny how when you are on a path going somewhere it is an irritation when something unexpected slows the ingress. It’s an unnecessary delay, not a charming appetizer. These adamant revelers march to the left, away from the doors. She and Rob turn with the crowd to watch. Trumpeters, now silent, corner a small square while three dancers waft to the center, swaying and surging to electronic music that emanates from large speakers. With each balletic leap, the dancers’ diaphanous sleeves undulate in gauzy waves while arms reach and fingertips meet in spires. More sashays and leaps and then the music fades and the troupe slow-marches toward the entrance, trumpets sounding and dancers pirouetting in their wake. The crowd follows.
Inside the Expo Hall colorful paintings and lithographs hang on white partitions that define each artist’s space. A few sculptures dominate a central nexus between show areas, shapes that take on different characteristics as you circle them. Sara points at three rough-cut bronze hoops: you can see the smallest within the middle-sized one that is, in turn, framed by the largest. When you view them side-on they line up: child, mother and father. From a diagonal distance, the edge of each larger hoop makes a parenthesis around the smaller one in front, like diminishing fans. ‘This is space-time art’, Sara announces, gesturing. ‘Depending on where you are, it’s something different.’
‘Relatively speaking,’ says Rob, eyebrows up.
‘Very punny,’ she grins and suppresses a natural inclination to weave her arm through his. Just as well.
It is at the exhibition that he explains about Carol. They sit near a bar, sipping drinks. His wife of 45 years has spent the last 25 of them flat on her back. An invalid of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, her energy is sapped, her pain, constant and her muscle power, gone, due to lack of activity. Rob pulls up a photo on his phone. Carol: pallid face, faded eyes, jutting cheekbones with sunken hollows beneath. White hair nests around the skull like horsehair stuffing, teased from the hospital pillow beneath her head. Someone’s nanna.
While Carol lay in bed in the care home Rob has kept vigil over the years, he explains. And does not need to explain that this on-going devotion means not getting involved with other women. Sara imagines his gentle, resolute rejection of advances deterring the locals, who knew better but tried their luck. Their two daughters are now married, the eldest, with two children.
Finally she finds words. ‘You’ve brought up two girls on your own, and have been a bit of a monk,’ she says, daring to look directly at him.
He smiles. ‘Not completely on my own. Carol was living in the house at first, with rotating help to dress and bathe her. She was mentally agile. Still is.’ Rob shrugs. What could he do but what had to be done? He is married; his wife lives. Now that she is transferred to the care home, he goes to see her every night after work. Still does, except when away like now. Sure, he has female friends galore: Sunday dinners, late afternoon barbecues, taking in his daughters when he’s travelled for work.
‘It’s OK,’ he is saying.
Sara wonders if she’s been frowning. First shock, then pain, now incredulity must have flitted across her face.
Sara smiles weakly. So many things to say, all lame. As for the dark thought that pokes up, she suppresses it. That as much suffering as she’s undergone in her life, it cannot compare with Rob’s zealous allegiance to a shell, inside of which shelters some part of his beloved Carol. Loyalty to a memory – when she had been his lover. Carol couldn’t have been that for the last decade or more. Is it enough, this living through grandkids that he proudly proves in more phone photos? He has soldiered on, taking a cue from some solemn general, until now, he expects this of himself and cannot imagine another way to be. They wander through the rest of the exhibition, the occasional canvas or sculpture pulling them closer. She pretends to look. In her head thoughts surface, sink back. She has now firmly doused the spark. Surprise and understanding. And sour grapes: he lives round the world in New Zealand.
Rob invited her to a trattoria for lunch and their last meeting. A bright disk of light plays on the table, beaming from the hanging lamp in the arched ceiling. As the waitress brings their pasta dishes, Sara advances her theory about the meaning of the mud in the Japanese film. This black, primeval slime was to remind the author of connecting to her buried, primitive animal self, governed by bodily sensations – texture, smell and taste, as well as what she hears and sees. In her intellectual output the author was a talking head, Sara says. She became ill because she neglected her body’s need for being fully alive and present, for movement and physical stimulation. Sara stops talking, suddenly seeing an echo in Carol’s situation. She looks at her rigatoni and is relieved when Rob broaches Italians’ obsession with pasta. More than 200 types, she notes. Only one kind of sauce can top a specific noodle. Larger noodle shapes marry best with full-bodied, lusty sauces while thinner shapes are reserved for light, delicate sauces. The popular Anglo-American construct – thin spaghetti strands with a meaty raga – is never found in Italy, she says.
‘Well “noodle brain” has taken on a converse definition,’ Rob remarks.
They leave the trattoria. He will fetch his suitcase, take the train to the airport. Hugs. Back at her flat, October sun warms the floorboards, haloes the sofa, paints the thick cactus leaves lime and makes gold, elongated coins of the foliage on nearby plants. The light sings through the window. Loyalty to the dead, fascination with aging, adherence to patterns: as above, so below. In a quick stride she is at the casement, unfastening the iron catch, pulling the two panels of glass toward her, pressing them out to either side. She’s been surfing an imaginary wave, riding its momentum. She takes out her phone, squints at Rob’s message:
Thanks for everything. It was fun. Stay in touch. Waiting patiently at the train station. All good.
She deletes it, along with her dream, closes her eyes. Facing the sun she inhales.